Divided Nation, Divided Church: The Competing Narratives Within America and the United Methodist Church

When I was in my teens, my youth group would occasionally engage in an exercise that one youth director used to call “Points of View.” Three different youth would be asked to leave the room for three minutes, each with a piece of paper and pen. During the three minutes, their task was to describe from memory the room they had just left, writing down everything that they could remember about the setting. After three minutes, the three youth would rejoin the larger group and read their descriptions of the room. What was most entertaining and illuminating about the descriptions, of course, was how significantly different they were from one another. One person remembered the style or color of the carpet. Another person, the color of the walls or the painting beside the bookcase. Another person referenced the furniture and the kinds of chairs in which people were sitting. Some of their memories of the room were spot on in their accuracy. Others were a bit distorted. No two descriptions included the exact same details about the room.

The purpose of the exercise, as I remember it, was to help the members of my youth group to appreciate the fact that differing perspectives and points of view are a significant part of human community—that human beings are inclined to differ with one another in the ways they conceptualize reality and in their perceptions of the world around them. I remember the youth director making the point that such divergences in perspective occur, not only in the way people see a room, but also in the way that people understand issues. “Just as people see a room differently,” he said, “so will they see politics differently. And social issues. And the Bible. And Christianity.” He went on to make the point that, while not all ways of looking at things are equally right, each way represents a perspective that is strongly held and that most likely reflects the priorities and principles of its holder. “And there’s the challenge of being a nation or a church or a youth group,” the youth director said. “It’s the challenge of maintaining a lasting unity around shared core beliefs while respecting one another’s differing perspectives and viewpoints, and perhaps even learning from one another in the process.”

I have reflected often upon that “Points of View” exercise over the last few years, especially as divisions in our nation’s political and moral thought have become seemingly sharper and more rancorous than they have ever been, at least in my lifetime. If one were to ask a thousand randomly chosen Americans to leave the metaphorical room and write down their perspectives and perceptions of what kind of nation America currently is, what its priorities should be, and where it should be headed in its continuing development as a nation, I suspect that one would receive a mind-boggling variety of seemingly divergent observations and convictions. As one youth group member said during the “Points of View” exercise, “it’s as though they are describing two different rooms.” Frequently, after spending time listening to perspectives on MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN, I feel as though the various pundits are describing different nations—different “rooms”

Journalist George Packer recently wrote an article that appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of The Atlantic (Vol. 328). The article, entitled The Four Americas: Competing Visions of the Country’s Purpose and Meaning Are Tearing It Apart, is an insightful exploration of four political worldviews (or four streams of political philosophy) that Packer believes have become primary in America’s national ethos. These “rival narratives,” as Packer describes them, have taken the place of the dominant two narratives that the nation’s two-party political system once generated—two narratives in which “Liberal Republicans” and “Conservative Democrats” once had sufficient political air to breathe and significant roles to play in the functioning of the nation’s political machinery. To Packer’s credit, he is critical of each of the four rival narratives without demonizing any of them. He believes that each narrative offers something important that Americans dismiss at their own peril. He also believes that each narrative, without the correctives and counterbalances provided by the others, is, at best, inadequate and, at worst, destructive to the nation’s moral and philosophical integrity.

Packer calls the first of the four rival narratives “Free America,” and describes it as the most politically powerful and influential narrative of the past half century. The “Free America” narrative places a philosophical emphasis upon the elevation and protection of individual rights and liberties, the furthering of libertarian ideals, and the three-engine impetus of small government, consumer capitalism, and rugged individualism. According to Packer, many who embrace the Free America narrative have “interpreted the Constitution as a libertarian document for individual and states’ rights under a limited federal government, not as a framework for the strengthened nation that the authors of The Federalist Papers envisioned…The purpose of government [in Free America thought] is to secure individual rights, and little else. One sip of social welfare and free government dies.”

As I understand it, the strength of the Free America narrative is that it reflects the very spirit of independence out of which America was born—a resistance to tyranny and governmental oppression that both strengthens political accountability and clarifies the moral vision of America as “the land of the free.” The Free America narrative also gives an important voice to portions of the American population that feel marginalized and, in some cases, silenced by political and social elites. (“I don’t watch the Oscars anymore,” one person said to me recently, “because Hollywood elites are so in love with their own opinions that they act like my opinion and the opinions of many others don’t even matter anymore.”)

The pitfall of Free America thought, however, is that its emphasis on individual rights, if unchallenged and unqualified, can lead to a spirit of isolationism that, while championing freedom FROM government, loses sight of the urgency of freedom FOR responsible and sacrificial citizenship. In such isolationism, paranoia can inspire a person to see tyranny where it is not really present (like in a governmental mask mandate for the protection of a school or community), which tends to result in an outrage that is often more obstructionist than righteous, and frequently more parochial than it is patriotic.

Another criticism (highlighted by Packer) is that the Free America narrative accommodates and, in many ways, depends upon the presupposition that everyone in America has an equal shot at the individual freedom and liberty that the narrative celebrates. If history has taught us anything, it is that such a presupposition is not grounded in truth.

Packer entitles the second narrative “Smart America.” Emphasizing higher education, professional advancement, cultural engagement, and the nurturing of expertise, embracers of this narrative celebrate their cosmopolitan identity and this nation’s long-held prioritization of personal advancement and holistic improvement. Packer describes the narrative in this fashion:

The new knowledge economy created a new class of Americans: men and women with college degrees, skilled with symbols and numbers—salaried professionals in information technology, computer engineering, scientific research, design, management consulting, the upper civil service, financial analysis, law, journalism, the arts, higher education. They go to college with one another, intermarry, gravitate to desirable neighborhoods in large metropolitan areas, and do all they can to pass on their advantages to their children. They are not 1 percenters—those are mainly executives and investors—but they dominate the top 10 percent of American incomes, with outsize economic and cultural influence. They’re at ease in the world that modernity created. They were early adopters of things that make the surface of contemporary life agreeable.

Like Free America, Smart America champions capitalism and a government that does not interfere with advancement. But Smart America tends to believe that “some government interventions are necessary for everyone to have an equal chance to move up.” Proponents of the narrative affirm that “the long history of racial injustice demands remedies…the poor need a social safety net and a living wage…and poor children deserve higher spending on education and health care.”

Interestingly, Smart Americans, according to Packer’s analysis, “are uneasy with patriotism.” They appreciate their country, the freedom it affords, and the sacrifices that have been made to ensure those freedoms, but tend to look upon excessive patriotism as either narcissistic or self-aggrandizing. As Packer puts it, “[Smart Americans] have lost the capacity and the need for a national identity, which is why they can’t grasp its importance for others.” To put this into a contemporary context, in a debate over the issue of kneeling during the national anthem, one of the other narratives might be quick to express offense and outrage over the perceived disrespect. A Smart American, by contrast, might be inclined to wonder why such a big deal is being made about a simple act of protest and might focus instead on gaining a deeper understanding of what is being protested.

The strength of Smart America is its consistent emphases upon intellectual scrutiny and holistic comprehension, both of which help the nation to avoid the toxic danger of being dominated or governed by extreme worldviews and irresponsible conspiracy theories. One of the narrative’s noteworthy dangers, however, is that its championing of knowledge and expertise can breed condescension, classism, and artificial hierarchy, all of which tear at the fabric of national unity. Likewise, Smart America’s ambivalence toward patriotism tends to resonate like unpleasantly dissonant music in the concert hall of a nation that is struggling with its national identity.

Packer calls the third narrative “Real America.” It is, according to Packer, “a very old place,” and is built upon the conviction that “the authentic heart of democracy beats hardest in common people who work with their hands” and that the fullest truth is to be found, not in specialized learning, but in “the native wisdom of the people.”

Here is Packer’s more detailed description of the narrative:

From its beginnings, Real America has been religious, and in a particular way: evangelical and fundamentalist…The truth will enter every simple heart, and it doesn’t come in shades of gray…Finally, Real America has a strong nationalist character. It’s attitude toward the rest of the world is isolationist…but ready to respond aggressively to any incursion against national interests…[In Real America] the villagers can fix their own boilers, and they will go out of their way to help a neighbor in a jam. A new face on the street will draw immediate attention and suspicion.

Real Americans are fiercely loyal to their ideals, which tend to be grounded in a vision for America that emphasizes things like protection, prosperity, tradition, religious freedom, nationalistic pride, and the valuing of the industries upon which this nation was built. They want government to be small in its interference but big in its fight for the working class and in its opposition to any form of elitism that would diminish the middle class. Phrases like “Make America great again” and “Drain the swamp” and “Build the wall” resonate with particular power among Real Americans because such phrases tap into the nationalistic priorities and anti-elitism that Real Americans hold dear.

At its best, the Real America narrative brings to the nation a strong sense of patriotism, an honoring of important segments of tradition and history, and a stubborn refusal to allow leaders to forget about either the working class or the protection of the nation’s citizenry.

If unchecked, however, Real America’s patriotism can quickly and easily degenerate into jingoism; its anti-elitism into a resistance to important expertise; and its fierce Americanism into an accommodation of white Christian nationalism.

Finally, the fourth rival narrative is what Packer calls “Just America.” Fueled by the injustices and inequities (past and present) that our nation has both enabled and accommodated, this narrative grounds itself in a vision for an America where things that are painfully wrong are made right. The governing principle for Just Americans is “justice for all,” and they tend to evaluate the nation’s health and integrity by the degree to which it realizes this principle for its people. As Packer notes, “for Just Americans, the country is less a project of self-government to be improved than a site of continuous wrong to be battled.” According to the narrative, America’s best and most urgent priority is “the historical demand of the oppressed, [which is] inclusion as equal citizens in all the institutions of American life.”

Just Americans long for a government that shares its vision for justice and participates actively and dynamically in the realization of that justice. They long for a citizenry that refuses to remain complacent or indifferent to the struggles of the oppressed and the marginalized. They long for a nation that takes its painful history of racism and sexism seriously while creating a future where such sins no longer have sufficient American air to breathe. According to Packer, Just America “forces us to see the straight line that runs from slavery and segregation to the second-class life so many Black Americans live today—the betrayal of equality that has always been the country’s great moral shame.”

Naturally, the Just America narrative generates a sense of urgency within America’s national consciousness, thereby deepening the country’s heart toward the hurting, the oppressed, and the mistreated. The narrative itself helps to stimulate the nation’s moral sensibilities, even among those who question or oppose the narrative. Case in point, when some Americans respond to the phrase “Black lives matter” with the retort, “No, ALL lives matter,” the Just American might be inclined to take the conversation into deeper moral territory: “Of course all lives matter. But you are missing the point of the phrase. All lives won’t truly matter until we stop doing systemic harm to black and brown lives.” Such conversations help to clarify a nation’s response to racism, even when there is disagreement over some of the particulars.

A fair criticism of the narrative, however, is that the ferocity of its moral vision can lead to a distorted worldview that demonizes all persons and perspectives that do not fully embrace the totality of the narrative. As Packer notes,

What had been considered, broadly speaking, American history (or literature, philosophy, classics, even math) is explicitly defined as white, and therefore supremacist. What was innocent by default suddenly finds itself on trial, every idea is cross-examined, and nothing else can get done until the case is heard.

Also, in the Just America narrative, the intense focus on systemic injustices and institutional policy can obscure the urgency of personal choices, individual initiative, and interpersonal skill. “Structural racism is real,” Packer writes, “but so is individual agency.” Any holistic vision for justice must surely emphasize both.

Four narratives.

Four dynamic stories, each of which a multilayered attempt to interpret a nation’s identity and trajectory and to clarify a nation’s priorities.

Packer does not argue for the superiority of any of the narratives. Neither will I. In fact, I agree wholeheartedly with Packer’s assessment that “each [of the narratives] offers a value that the others need and lacks ones that the others have.”

I have to believe that the healthiest way forward for a divided nation involves a commitment to understanding the different narratives, appreciating the values upon which they are built, affirming their various strengths, acknowledging their various weaknesses and dangers, and clarifying their various distortions. This is hard work, to be certain. It is always far easier to compartmentalize than it is to collaborate. I believe wholeheartedly, however, that America will become a far grander nation when it learns to accommodate its various narratives as important and necessary stories within a shared anthology instead of reducing them to rancorous rhetoric or, worse, battle lines in a civil war.

Our best and only way into a healthy national future is to figure out what it means to become multilingual enough to converse meaningfully and strategically across the spectrum of narratives, thereby generating a national identity that embraces a wide range of important and unifying values—values such as Free America’s freedom, Smart America’s intelligence, Real America’s patriotism, and Just America’s justice.

Packer’s concluding paragraph resonates with important truth in this regard:

We have no choice but to live together—we’re quarantined as fellow citizens. Knowing who we are lets us see what kinds of change are possible. Countries are not social-science experiments. They have organic qualities, some positive, some destructive, that can’t be wished away. Our passion for equality, the individualism it produces, the hustle for money, the love of novelty, the attachment to democracy, the distrust of authority and intellect—these won’t disappear. A way forward that tries to evade or crush them on the road to some free, smart, real, or just utopia will never arrive…But a way forward that tries to make us Equal Americans, all with the same rights and opportunities is a road that connects our past and our future…Neither separation nor conquest is a tenable future.

If you have read this far, perhaps you will travel with me into one more personal reflection:

I am struck by the way in which Packer’s analysis of the nation applies to the current climate in the ecclesiastical setting in which I live out both my vocation and my life of faith: The United Methodist Church.

Like the nation, my Christian denomination is divided over principles and priorities—over different understandings of identity, purpose, and vision for the future. There are at least four (and probably more) rival narratives that are fighting for dominance within United Methodism at present.

To borrow George Packer’s nomenclature, there is a strong “Free Church” narrative within United Methodism—an ethos that advocates for a more congregational (and less connectional) model of church that eliminates denominational ties and accountabilities and places decision-making, prioritization, and even the selection of pastoral leadership entirely in the hands of the local church. The strength of such a narrative is its passion for local ministry and contextualized community impact. Its weakness is its proclivity to the kind of congregational isolationism that limits and perhaps even prevents the kind of global impact (and global sense of community) that a connectional system of polity makes possible.

There is also a “Smart Church” narrative within the denomination. Smart Church clergy and laity believe that the church’s best future depends upon theological and ecclesiastical education, leadership training, and professional expertise. The Smart Church rightly emphasizes the urgency of well trained and well educated leadership and lifelong learning. Its weakness is that it can become dismissive of the important voices and perspectives that often emerge from untrained and non-professional congregants and members of the community.

One of the strongest narratives in contemporary United Methodism is what might be called “Real Church.” With a clear, specific, and almost absolutist set of convictions about what constitutes orthodoxy, correct biblical interpretation, and right practice, Real Church people (on both the right and the left) envision a church that is pure and unified in its doctrine, its teaching, and its behavioral standards. Currently, nowhere is the Real Church narrative more clearly manifested than in the denomination’s divide over human sexuality, with many across the theological spectrum convinced that the particular church they envision is the most “real.” Those who embrace the Real Church narrative help the denomination to clarify its doctrine and deepen its theological understanding of both the church’s ministry and individual discipleship. The danger of the narrative is that the purity and homogeneity of doctrine it pursues can be both elusive and difficult to maintain without theological myopia. Likewise, Real Church thought can feel cold, rigid, and dismissive to those who might bring a differing perspective to what it means to be fully “real” as a church.

Every bit as strong as the “Real Church” narrative is the “Just Church” narrative. In the Just Church’s ecclesiastical vision, nothing is more important than the pursuit and expanding realization of the justice that it believes accompanies God’s reign and the righting of those wrongs that prevent the church and world from being a reflection of that reign. The Just Church looks upon areas of focus such as the dismantling of racism, ministry with the poor, and caring for the sick as being nothing less than the church’s most urgent work in a fallen world where distortions and injustices abound. This narrative helps the United Methodist Church to honor its longstanding emphasis upon social holiness and community transformation. Its weakness is that it can lose sight of the denomination’s other historical points of emphasis, such as personal transformation, individual holiness, and the salvation of souls (as well as bodies).

Many within the denomination believe that these narratives can no longer healthily coexist under one denominational roof—that the “big tent” of United Methodism is no longer big enough for all the narratives. These are the voices that are advocating most fervently for a denominational split in order to allow the different narratives to exist without having to accommodate (or battle) other perspectives. On many days, I am inclined to agree with those voices calling for split. After all, as I wrote earlier related to the nation, compartmentalization (or division) is ultimately easier than navigating collaboration across a diverse theological spectrum.

But there is a significant portion of my soul that believes that George Packer’s words about the nation apply even more to my denominational tribe:

We have no choice but to live together. We’re quarantined as fellow citizens [or fellow disciples]…Neither separation nor conquest is a tenable future.

Nation.

Church.

Both divided. Both searching for a way forward. Both faced with the daunting challenge of deciding between collaboration and division; between staying together and separating; between creating space for multiple narratives and limiting the space so that only the preferred narrative can fit.

It may very well be that you are able to find your own voice easily in one or more of the narratives that Packer identifies and that I have described. If so, I hope that you will resist the temptation in this forum to argue for the rightness of your narrative(s) or the wrongness of someone else’s. Instead, I encourage you to discern the values that fuel other perspectives and listen to the echoes of truth that may resonate within those narratives that are different from yours.

I do not presume to know with any certainty the best way forward. My prayer, however, for both a nation and church I dearly love, is that integrity, compassion, respect, and unity will flourish from sea to shining sea—and from sanctuary to prayerful sanctuary.

America’s Cancelation Policy: Reflections on ‘Cancel Culture’ and the Church’s Relationship to It

The voices are loud. Demanding. Angry. And often unnuanced.

“This ‘cancel culture’ has to stop! If something offends you, then just don’t listen to it! Or don’t watch it! Or don’t read it!”

Other loud voices emerge from a different portion of the philosophical spectrum:

“This isn’t about ‘cancel culture!’ This is about correcting wrongs that we have tolerated for far too long!”

As people entrench themselves in both intensified anger and fortified viewpoints, accusations and presuppositions often begin to take priority over nuanced discernment. One group asserts that a portion of its history is being taken away. Another declares the moral high ground en route to what it perceives to be a nobler future. The end result is a lingering fracture that no doctor can heal (not even Dr. Seuss).

Some respond to the fracture with defensiveness or territorialism. Others with dismissiveness. Still others with retaliatory ridicule and an eagerness to belittle perspectives that run counter to their own. In the often complex and sometimes confounding sociological maelstrom and philosophical commotion, faith communities (like the church) have a unique opportunity both to speak a countercultural message and to model the kind of distinctive priorities that bear witness to the theological narrative by which they are endeavoring to live. Sadly, instead of incarnating a different way, the church too often settles for one of the viewpoints handed to it by a divided culture, the segments of which are all too eager to have faith communities on their side.

So where does that leave the church? What sense might the church make of the “cancel culture” debate? And how might the church respond to it in a manner that reflects the priorities of Jesus, a commitment to justice, an appreciation of history and its complexity, and a vision for our nation’s integrity?

While I can offer no definitive answers, I am led to believe that the church’s navigation of the current territory will require the continued consideration of these practical and theological convictions:

Conviction #1: The work of “canceling,” even when deemed morally necessary, will always illuminate both the noteworthy inconsistencies of the cancelation process and the inherent hypocrisies of those claiming to be its overseers.

Critics of “cancel culture” rightly point out that decisions about who or what gets canceled (and who or what does not) are often subject to the inconsistent priorities and proclivities of an erratic culture and its flawed arbiters. Racism is rightly condemned, but by a nation built largely upon the back of slavery. Misogyny is rightly decried, but by a culture that often sexualizes even its children and youth. Intolerance is rightly rebuked, but often by the intolerant. These manifestations of moral inconsistency and hypocrisy do not in any way justify an abandonment of public moral censuring. They do, however, elucidate a shared fallenness that should, at the very least, inspire both intensified caution and a resistance to weaponized sanctimony when it comes to the activity of public condemnation. To borrow the imagery of Jesus, the ones who endeavor to cancel, irrespective of their sense of moral rightness, do well to recognize the “plank” in their own personal histories, even as they endeavor to remove the offending “speck” from a variety of different eyes.

Conviction #2: At its worst, public rebuke becomes the moral posturing of a nation seeking to castigate a convenient scapegoat. At its best, such rebuke becomes a nation’s rightful rejection of that which we tolerate or accommodate only at our own moral peril. 

The challenge for the church is to bring to the conversation about public condemnation the kind of steady critical thinking that distinguishes between the pursuit of justice and the demonization of dissenting voices. Only then can the church’s people move beyond image management and virtue signaling in order to add their hearts, voices, and energies to the complex and critical work of helping our nation’s narrative to reflect the truth of who we have been, the reality of who we are, and the vision of who we aspire to be.

Conviction #3: When there is a public denunciation of something or someone based upon a general moral consensus, the church’s most Christ-honoring response is to choose patient attentiveness instead of cynicism and to practice repentance instead of deflection.

A common criticism of “cancel culture” is that it focuses on all the wrong things. “How can people possibly worry about cartoons and a handful of Dr. Seuss books,” the argument goes, “when popular musicians are free to render highly sexualized performances with sexually graphic lyrics at the televised Grammy Awards?” Such deflection illuminates both the complexity of cultural cancelation and the strong disagreement that exists over its priorities. The church would do well to remember, however, that repentance is not a resource that becomes depleted with frequent usage. Rather, repentance is a way of life that makes redemptive room for all the wrongs that demand correction and all the distortions that demand reconfiguration. To put it another way, the church’s people must not allow the current ABSENCE of repentance over some issues to harden their hearts to the current PRESENCE of repentance over other issues. Disagreements about what requires repentance will certainly continue. The church, however, reflects the heart of Jesus most vibrantly when it joins the work of repentance wherever it is occurring instead of belittling that work for not yet finding expression in other places.

Conviction #4: In a climate of “cancel culture,” the church is called to elevate the conversation by becoming more fluent in its own unique and redemptive theological language.

The culture’s emphasis on “cancelation” becomes an opportunity for the church to reengage the deep rhythms of confession, repentance, rebirth, justification, and sanctification. When the culture traffics in the ethos of punishment, the church articulates afresh the importance of social holiness, the urgency of correcting injustice, and the moral necessity of taking responsibility for one’s behavior and being held accountable for its consequences. When the culture demands retribution, the church calls for transformation. And when the culture labels a soul irredeemable, the church tells the old, old story of a grace in which, mercifully, a soul’s cancelation is simply not an option.

Conviction #5: “Cancel culture” has the potential to become either a toxic methodology by which to ruin the lives of identified opponents or a means of refinement that helps to purify the cultural air.

Where publicized denunciation is weaponized without accountability—where it becomes, in other words, less of a prophetic denunciation of wrongdoing and more of a calculated effort to silence all dissent and incapacitate all dissenters, the church has a moral responsibility to name the harm being caused, to advocate for the ones harmed, and to work toward a just rectification. On the other hand, where such denunciation reflects a nation’s earnest and disciplined journey of sanctification, the church can join the effort rightly, since sanctification is a central and beautiful theme in the church’s own grand story.

The convictions that I have enumerated here reflect my belief that “cancel culture” need not be conceptualized or treated as the church’s enemy. I am more inclined to look upon it as the imperfect and inconsistent methodology of a culture that is seeking to clarify its ever-expanding vision for what it wants to be and what it does not want to be—what it wishes to elevate and repudiate. Naturally, the church cannot expect a complete alignment between its priorities and the culture’s when it comes to the shared work of public remonstration and moral correction. I am convinced, however, that prayerful and consistent scrutiny will illuminate far more common ground than one might at first assume—as though God is steadily at work to bring both the church and the world into the kind of salvific symbiosis that moves the entirety of creation toward the redemption for which it groans. 

Someone said to me recently, “But what if ‘cancel culture’ tries to cancel the church?”

I offered the only response that came to me in the moment.

“Someone already tried to cancel the church two-thousand years ago. The result was an empty tomb, a ‘Hallelujah’ that still resonates, and a life that not even death can nullify.”

After the Election

Do you ever experience nights in which sleep becomes secondary to prayer and in which outcries to God become as natural as breathing and every bit as desperate? 

The last several nights have been like that for me—and, I suspect, for many others—simply because of the sense of urgency around the presidential election and all that is at stake in the days ahead.

May I speak to you about the specific nature of my current prayer, in the hope that my feeble petitions might resonate with your own prayerful spirit?

I am praying for President-elect Joe Biden, that his heart will break for the issues that matter most; that the noblest portions of his character will find dynamic expression in his leadership; that repentance, where necessary, will become authentically transformational for him; and that his presidency will be devoted to the kind of work that broadens our country’s grandness, deepens its integrity, and strengthens its unity.

I am praying for President-elect Biden’s family members, that they will be protected from the harm that global scrutiny so frequently causes and that they might be inspired to love and nurture one another with intentionality and attentiveness throughout these days of important transition.

I am praying for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her family, adding my voice and heart to the celebration of what her election represents in our country’s history. As the first woman and woman of color elected to the Vice Presidency, her election stands as a strong and vibrant repudiation of the sexism and racism that have been so painfully prevalent throughout our history.

I am praying for President Donald Trump, his family, and his staff, and for Vice President Mike Pence and his family, that they might know the sustaining and lifechanging grace of God in every portion of their journey.

I am praying for the healing of a nation that is starkly and frighteningly divided and whose divisions reflect substantial ideological differences that cannot be reduced to Facebook pronouncements and a smug dismissal of opposing viewpoints. I hold in my heart today my dear friends who, with me, see this election’s outcome as a long-awaited answer to prayer. I also hold in my heart my dear friends who are disappointed, angered, or heartbroken by this election’s outcome. Both types of people are part of the nation that President-elect Biden is preparing to lead. Both must be taken seriously.

I am praying for those who have felt wounded, mistreated, and diminished throughout this election season, that their vision and hope might be fully restored.

I am praying that the people of our great country (elected leaders and neighbors close by) will move toward a more comprehensive, reasoned, authentic, and respectful way of talking with one another about the vitally important matters that this election season has illuminated—including issues of race, gender, immigration, abortion, economics, and healthcare. I long for the kind of sustained and integrated dialogue in which people refuse to become so exclusively fixated on their own viewpoints that they can no longer value the perspectives and experiences of others.

Finally, I am praying for the church, which is the portion of the world where I spend most of my time and where I invest most of my energy. May the church commit itself afresh to the healing of a nation and to the hearing of all voices. May its people devote themselves anew to the work of justice, mercy, and Gospel-grounded transformation. And may its sacrificial ministry be a prophetic indication to the world that, while the church approaches the election of our political leaders with reverent seriousness and commitment, our deepest hope lies in the reign of God and the reconfigured lives and communities that God’s grace makes possible.

Breathe in, friends. Breathe out. Pray deeply. Be gentle with one another. And then meditate on this: 

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?—Micah 6:8

Reflections on a Presidential Election and the Divisions That Intensify It

We are approaching a presidential election that represents a culmination of the most politically and philosophically divisive campaign season that I have ever experienced.

Throughout the last several months, strongly held convictions and deeply felt emotions have put a strain on many families and friendships, on many pastors and congregations, and on many hearts and lives. After Tuesday, no matter how the election turns out, there will be excitement and a sense of victory among some, and deep frustration—perhaps even anguish—among others. And, as citizens of this great nation, we will all bear our share of emotional scars, irrespective of for whom we cast our vote.

I know that most of the people reading these paragraphs hold plenty of strong opinions about the election, and that anything like consensus is elusive at best. Further, I understand that you most likely encounter a diversity of political viewpoints in your network of relationships that sometimes causes your head to spin and your heart to hurt.

The last four years have illuminated a divide in our culture—and even in our faith communities—that, while perhaps long present, has never been so starkly and painfully delineated. The church, which is the faith community in which I both live out my vocation and nurture my spiritual formation, currently accommodates a divergence of perspectives related to the Presidency of Donald Trump that can sometimes lead to what feels like either severe ecclesiastical schizophrenia or a bad case of spiritual whiplash. 

An articulate Christian defense of Trump’s Presidency can be found in the writing of Eric Metaxas, who included these words in his op-ed article for the Wall Street Journal (January 7, 2020):

If slavery was rightly considered wicked—and both a moral and political issue—how can this macabre practice [abortion] be anything else? How can Christians pretend this isn’t the principal moral issue of our time, as slavery was in 1860? Can’t these issues of historic significance outweigh whatever the president’s moral failings might be?…The pejorative du jour is to call evangelicals ‘transactional,’ as though buying a loaf of bread and not simply praying for one were somehow faithless. But what is sneeringly called ‘transactional’ is representational government, in which patriotic citizens vote, deputizing others to act on their behalf for the good of the country. Isn’t it conceivable that faithful Christians think Mr. Trump is the best choice?…Christians are staggered to see good souls who stand by millennia-old religious convictions portrayed as deplorable bigots. Democrats—and many Republicans, too—simply look away, seemingly resigned to a culturally Marxist future in which they too may at any minute be rent asunder by woke mobs. Given this new reality, is it any wonder Mr. Trump’s bellicosity often draws cheers?  Or that the appointment of originalist judges has become so urgent that some people are willing to countenance a chief executive who tweets like a WWE figure?

In stark contrast to Metaxas’ conceptualization of Trump as Christianity’s “best choice” and a necessary response to an American culture that is bounding headlong toward a “Marxist future,” John Pavlovitz, another articulate Christian voice, recently published a provocative blog post entitled “No, I Won’t Agree to Disagree About This President. You’re Just Wrong” (October 18, 2020). In his post, Pavlovitz gives expression to a moral anguish that he believes is worth dividing over:

At this point, with the past four years as a resume, your alignment with this president means that we are fundamentally disconnected on what is morally acceptable—and I’ve simply seen too much to explain that away or rationalize your intentions or give you the benefit of the doubt any longer. I know what your reaffirmation of him is telling me about your disregard for the lives of people of color, about your opinion of women, about your attitude toward Science, about the faith you so loudly profess, and about your elemental disrespect for bedrock truth. I now can see how pliable your morality is, the kinds of compromises you’re willing to make, the ever-descending bottom you’re following into, in order to feel victorious in a war you don’t even know why you’re fighting…This isn’t just a schism on one issue or a single piece of legislation, as those things would be manageable. This isn’t a matter of politics or preference. This is a pervasive, sprawling, saturating separation about the way we see the world and what we value and how we want to move through this life. Agreeing to disagree with you in these matters, would mean silencing myself and more importantly, betraying the people who bear the burdens of your political affiliations—and this is not something I’m willing to do…Your devaluing of black lives is not an opinion. Your acceptance of falsehoods is not an opinion. Your defiance of facts in a pandemic is not an opinion. Your hostility toward immigrants is not an opinion. These are fundamental heart issues.

The divergence of theological thought reflected by these two Christian writers is as compelling as it is unsettling. These are contrasting worldviews that, while not mutually exclusive, bring to light differing moral priorities and disparate ideas about what matters most to Jesus. Would the starkness of the disparity be different if there were a greater number of pro-life Democrats? Or more Republicans concerned about racism, the climate, and access to healthcare? Perhaps. As it stands, however, faithful followers of Jesus, along with many other faith communities, find themselves every bit as divided as the culture that surrounds them, if not more so.

I do not offer solutions in these paragraphs. In fact, I am not at all convinced that a solution exists. The cultural and ecclesiastical divide is not a problem to be solved as much as it is a formative tension to navigate—a moral strain that, if stewarded with both an attentiveness to what is at stake and a stubborn refusal to demonize, has the potential to make us into a more compassionate nation and a more virtuous church.

Of course, it will always be easier to make enemies of one another, protecting our preferred categories and clarifying the battle lines. Moral strains and formative tensions, after all, are excruciatingly difficult. Weaponizing our priorities in order to excoriate those who do not freight them as we do is a perpetual temptation, and an enticing one at that.

But I am hoping that there is another way. I am hoping that Biden supporters might force themselves over the next several weeks and months to listen patiently to the hearts of those Americans who will cast their vote for Trump, not because they are racists or misogynists, but perhaps because of their conviction that a nation’s governing ethos is at stake and their belief that abortion is a monumental moral crisis that outweighs all other concerns and upon which the integrity of America hinges. Likewise, I am hoping that Trump supporters will compel themselves to appreciate the priorities of those who will vote for Biden, not because they gravitate toward socialism or an indifference to the unborn, but because they have come to the conclusion that both the character and actions of the current President are toxic to our nation’s vitality, corrosive to our national integrity, and ruinous to our noblest aspirations.

My vision for this “other way” is based upon neither a desire for moral equivalence (since not all positions can be equally right) nor a contentment with shallow civility (since the issues at hand are far too important to be swept under the carpet of an anemic geniality). Rather, my vision finds its impetus in the two-fold conviction that the betterment of our nation depends on the navigation of our moral tension and not its militarization, and that our grandest future is far more comprehensive than what can be generated by any one party’s platform. To put it simply, for the sake of moral accountability and philosophical holism, we need one another, even if we do not want to. Such a recognition of the need for the “other” is woven into the very fabric of the American dream. In fact, this very principle often leads to the righting of agonizing wrongs during those periods when the American dream becomes nightmarish for many.

All of this inspires me to offer the following hopes—not because I think I know any more than you do, but simply because my heart will not allow me to be silent:

First, if you are someone who prays and believes in the power of prayer, then I hope that you will be intentional about praying your way into a deep and durable preparedness as we head into the election. More specifically, I hope that you will pray with urgency

  • for peace and integrity in our nation, before, during, and after the election
  • for your personal strength to become an active agent of the peace for which you are praying
  • for the hearts and spirits of the people in your network of relationships—both the people with whom you agree and those whose viewpoints you oppose
  • for President Trump, former Vice President Biden, Vice President Pence, and Senator Harris and their families
  • and for your own heart, that it might not succumb to despair, cynicism, or resentment.

Second, if you are someone who embraces the Bible as a source of spiritual revelation or guidance, then I hope that you will experience a healthy engagement with Biblical truth so that you might keep the election in perspective and help those around you to do the same. For example, in recent weeks, I have found great encouragement in Isaiah 40—a wonderfully evocative section of Scripture in which the prophet speaks urgent and powerful words of comfort, hope, and assurance to God’s people. Verses 22 and 23 of Isaiah 40 have resonated for me with particular clarity: “It is the Lord who sits above the circle of the earth…who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.” I hear in these words a compelling reminder of the fact that a presidential election, while tremendously important, will not diminish the sovereignty of the One we worship, nor will it impede God’s authority over “the circle of the earth.” The prophet concludes by reminding us that “The Lord is the everlasting God” who renews the strength of the faint so that “they shall mount up with wings like eagles” (Isaiah 40:28-31). I am hoping that you will nurture your own spirit in this kind of Biblical truth, so that you might resist the temptation to kneel at the wrong altar in the days following the election.

Third, I hope that you will think about how to create safe spaces of prayer and healing silence for the people in your family, neighborhood, social network, and faith community during the next several weeks—even virtually. My sense is that people need such safe spaces more than ever, whether they realize it or not. The current noise in our culture is loud, complex, and relentless. Help the people in your corner of the world to find their way into quiet spaces of prayer in which the Holy Spirit can begin to heal wounds, restore hope, and illuminate the many convictions that unite us.

Fourth, I hope that you will practice good and attentive stewardship over all of your communication, spoken and written, remembering that you are addressing a political spectrum of which no single portion can lay claim to the entirety of either the Gospel or the moral high ground. Hold your personal convictions, but do not weaponize them. Preach the Gospel, but do not reduce the pulpit to an instrument through which to vent your personal spleen. Advocate for justice, but recognize that there are differing perspectives in your community concerning what the fullness of justice looks like and which portions of justice warrant the highest prioritization. Speak into social media, but speak graciously and carefully, so that you do not become “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” There will be plenty of voices crying out following the election. In the midst of that outcry, work hard to ensure that your voice is helpful rather than hurtful.

Fifth, if you are a leader in the church, I hope that you will make certain that your congregational worship on the weekend of Saturday and Sunday, November 7 and 8, is rich with fervent hope, energized prayer, and the proclamation of a Savior who cannot be claimed by any political party or confined to any party’s platform. Your congregation will need that kind of worship. Help them to experience it.

Finally, if you are Christian, I hope that you will commit yourself afresh to the bold, creative, and tenacious love that Jesus himself describes in his Sermon on the Mount—a love extended even toward our “enemies” and those who persecute us (Matthew 5:43-48). This kind of love, of course, has nothing to do with how much we agree with a person or even the amount of affection we hold for her or him. Rather, the love to which Jesus calls us is deeply rooted in the often countercultural work of respecting the personhood of those with whom we are ideologically conflicted, showing compassion to those who are on the other end of a variety of spectrums, and blessing our philosophical opponents with our refusal to assume the worst about them. Practically speaking, such love produces authentic concern for the heartbroken (instead of gloating) if our preferred candidate is elected and authentic graciousness (instead of vitriol) if our preferred candidate is not elected. Jesus seemed to believe that this kind of love reflects the very character of God and that its embodiment among his followers illuminates both the nature of God’s reign and the heart of God’s vision for what the world can be at its very best. I am hoping in prayer that the people called Church are known primarily for their love, both throughout this week and beyond this week.

On October 6, 1774, John Wesley wrote these important words in his journal: 

I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them

1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy

2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against, and

 3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.

May we find in these words a call to both civic responsibility and continued graciousness. May we also embrace the wisdom of Wesley’s counsel to resist the sharpening of our spirits against those whose political perspectives (and votes) differ from ours.

If you have read this far, please be assured that I am with you in this hard and important journey, praying in a spirit of deep gratitude for the honor of walking alongside you. If you feel that I have not gone far enough in what I have written, or if you find in my words what sounds far too much like a support for unholy compromises, I certainly receive that criticism. Likewise, if you feel that I have gone too far, or that I have strayed dangerously beyond the boundaries of that for which I am trained, you may very well be right. 

At the heart of the post, though, is nothing more (and nothing less) than my personal and unrelenting belief that our nation and its faith communities have a deeper and more expansive greatness in their future. Getting there, however, will require courageous navigation and an unwavering commitment to choosing hope over fear, cooperation over partisanship, and, perhaps most importantly, integrity over demagoguery. 

A Yearning for the World That Breonna Deserved

If we are well-acquainted, I trust that you know something about the heart from which these words come. If, on the other hand, our association is you may be tempted to assume the worst about my motives or intentions. I pray that you will resist that temptation.

(Artwork: “Breonna Taylor” by Alice X. Zhang)

If we are well-acquainted, then I trust that you know something about the heart from which these words come. If, on the other hand, our association has not been nurtured by time, you may be tempted to assume the worst about my motives or intentions. I pray that the tone and content of my words might inspire you to resist that temptation.

I am perpetually grateful and prayerful for those law enforcement officers whose character breeds integrity, whose foundational commitment is to the protection of all people, and whose vision for justice inspires within them a willingness to be accountable to the very citizenry they serve and defend. The safety of our communities, in so many ways, depends upon the everyday work of such noble agents of law enforcement. I laud, honor, and celebrate the many officers (some of whom I have known personally) whose virtuousness and courage my words describe. Always have. Always will.

And yet, the tragic police shooting death of an unarmed Breonna Tayor in her apartment on March 13, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky and the perplexing ruling of a grand jury on September 23, 2020 (specifically, the ruling that no officers involved in the shooting would be directly charged in her death) indicate that something is woefully and systemically distorted.

I readily acknowledge that I am not an expert in the pertinent legal particulars surrounding the case. Nor am I privy to all of the details of the shooting to which the grand jury would have had access.

But I do know that five of the many bullets that police fired into Breonna Taylor’s apartment on March 13 (in response to a single shot fired by her boyfriend, the precise details of which are unclear) entered her body and ended her life. Her violent, unnecessary death and the grand jury’s subsequent ruling leave a host of troubling questions hanging in the air that America currently breathes.

Where will accountability be found in the shooting death of an unarmed 26-year-old hospital worker?

When does police response cross the important line that separates justification from recklessness—or that separates self-defense from some form of manslaughter? And when will the discernment of such line-crossing apply to Breonna Taylor and not only her neighbors?

When does justice for a life demand a far more extensive pursuit than a grand jury can render?

What reforms are necessary in the law (Better search warrants? Better communicational processes and suspect-tracking? Better training and accountability?) to ensure the prevention of similar tragedies and aftermaths?

And who are the voices at every level of leadership that will refuse to see the death of Breonna Taylor as anything less than a clarion call for a justice not yet realized?

I pray that we will not back away from these questions, settling for either a protective silence that guards our comfort or, worse, a callous indifference that diminishes our moral sensibilities.

Please hear me. I loudly decry any violence committed in the name of protest, including the ugly and inexcusable violence that led to the shooting of Louisville police officers last evening. Such violence is an assault on the very spirit of justice that all authentic protest pursues, and it cannot be either condoned or ignored. “Hate multiplies hate,” said Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, “violence multiplies violence…in a descending spiral of destruction.” 

At the same time, I pray fervently that we will not fixate so myopically on the deplorable violence of some protestors that we fail to bring a morally-necessary outrage to the stark racial injustices and inequities that inspire protestation in the first place.

Please hear me. I am aware of the concerns of those in our communities and congregations who are either offended or unsettled by the nomenclature of “white privilege” and “systemic racism.”

At the same time, I pray urgently that we will not allow our resentment over certain concepts either to harden our hearts to the realities that those concepts illuminate or to blind us to the fact that Breonna Taylor, as a citizen of color, experienced this world and this nation’s legal system very differently than a white citizen would.

Please hear me. I join many of you in experiencing both weariness and discouragement in the work of dismantling racism in all of its expressions.

At the same time, I pray desperately that whatever weariness we might experience in the work of dismantling racism might serve only to deepen our sensitivity to the far more profound weariness of those who are confronted every single day with unfair presuppositions and dehumanizing mistreatment because of their race.

If, at any point in this post, I have come across as condescending or self-righteous, please forgive me. Perhaps I have said too much or communicated what I have said wrongly or irresponsibly. Or perhaps I have not said enough.

To be honest, I simply needed to write…something—if only to attach some words to the inarticulate cries of my heart. 

They are cries for a justice not yet realized.

They are cries for Breonna and the absence of the world she deserved.

They are cries for the consistent mattering of black and brown lives, so that the sacred worth of all lives might be rightly discerned and honored.

A Prayer at the Beginning of a Strange and Difficult New School Year

bse facebook blog post images 2020 bts

God of the Ages, who cares deeply about what transpires in both the sanctuary and the classroom; at both the dinner table and the school cafeteria; in both the comforts of home and the hallways of our educational institutions; through both in-person and virtual learning:

We cry out to you on behalf of students in these pandemic-laden days. Some of these students are very young, heading off for their first day of kindergarten. Some are a bit older, enrolled in elementary school or middle school or high school. Others are headed off to college, or perhaps into a new season of graduate study. Others are entering the workforce in order to begin a journey of lifelong learning. All of them are attempting to navigate the rhythms and demands of both in-person and online education, all the while cultivating a patience and a discipline that the realities of COVID-19 require.

Open the minds of the students, that they might be available to their teachers and receptive to meaningful learning, by whatever methodology it takes place. Open their hearts, that they might be compassionately attentive to the other people whose lives intersect with theirs in the journey of their education. Even now, O God, the faces of many different students are appearing in our prayerful reflection. Grant that, as the students learn about mathematics and science and literature and history and language and a host of other subjects, they might also learn a deeper reverence for the One in whom all knowledge is ultimately to be found.

We cry out to you on behalf of teachers, all of whom are working creatively and diligently to create environments that are safe for the students and conducive to their learning.  Strengthen them in their labor. Energize them in their task. Guard them against any cynicism that would make a classroom into a cold and unpleasant place. Deepen their love, not only for their subject matter, but also for the ones they teach. By the power of your Holy Spirit, equip these teachers to be the instruments of compassionate tutelage that you are calling them to be, so that their commitment to their students might find full expression, both in physical classrooms and virtual ones. Bless them with your comfort and encouragement as they balance their concerns for their own safety with their devotion to their students, online and in-person.

We cry out to you on behalf of school administrators and staff. College presidents, deans, financial officers, planners, and registrars. Superintendents, principals, vice-principals, and guidance counselors. Nurses, school psychologists, and behavioral counselors. Administrative assistants, receptionists, custodial staff, security officers, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers. These are the souls whose sacred responsibility it is to generate a safe and nurturing environment in which holistic learning might take place. Enable them to enter this season with courage and vision, since none of them have experience in doing their work during a pandemic. Bless them with an ever-deepening awareness of their purpose, and grant to them the strength to fulfill it.

We cry out to you on behalf of families, many of which are struggling in painful ways during this season of transition. Some parents are finding it particularly difficult to let their children go as they head off to school in this often-frightening world. Some children and youth are burdened by a sense of insecurity as they enter into a new season of life and learning. Other families are dealing with the heavy emotional weight of having to rearrange schedules and routines in order to accommodate their child’s (or their children’s) online learning. Weave the different threads of these family circumstances into the rich and vibrant tapestry of your grace, so that the members of these families might be drawn closer to one another and closer to you.

Build a protective fortress, O God, around our schools and our institutions of higher learning and both the physical and virtual classrooms that they offer. Guard them against violence, hatred, bullying, and hurtful manipulation. Make every classroom and office into a sanctuary for your presence, so that, through our system of education, many will be led to recognize that a reverence for you is the beginning of all wisdom. We pray this prayer out of a variety of faith traditions. Personally, I pray it in the name of Jesus, whose transforming grace is the curriculum by which his followers live, move, and find their being. Amen.

We Are Better Than This: The Perils of Weaponized Grief

1e93c45cbcfe23d93b0b5bcc8533bffa

Both the inadequacy of my thinking and the limitations of my discernment have been regularly revealed over the course of my life. Please know that I am painfully aware of both as I write what I am about to write. I offer these words, not as one laboring under the delusion of absolute rightness, but as an openhearted seeker attempting to give voice to a deep internal struggle that will not go away.

My soul is sad. The collective resentment in our nation has inspired people in recent days to weaponize one grief against another, thereby distorting the profundity of both. Insufficient and caustic interpretations of current events and recent tragedies are producing bitterness more than they are illuminating truth.

Allow me to explain what I am describing.

The recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd (all of whom are representative of a much longer list of black and brown people) have painfully awakened our nation to racial injustice and inequity that have been too frequently ignored or tolerated. Their deaths, tragic and terrible, bear witness to what I have come to understand all too well from personal experience—that people of color experience a very different world than I do as a white male. This difference finds expression in law enforcement statistics and documented social narratives. It reveals itself through observed examples of undervaluation and mistreatment. It can be heard in the cavalier articulation of racial slurs, the perpetuation of institutionalized presuppositions, and an exaggeratedly fierce defense of certain flags, mascots, and statues. It hides in patterns, rhythms, and ideas that have become part of the sociological air that we breathe.

The “difference” that I am describing inspires within me, not a sense of guilt, but a heightened attentiveness; not an apology for being white, but a recognition that being white grants to me societal advantages that people of color are not automatically granted.

At the heart of the cry “black lives matter”—a cry that resonates with particular clarity in the aftermath of the killings referenced above—is the conviction that the struggle for racial justice and equity must be taken seriously and embraced in order for all lives to be valued equally. The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd are heartbreaking affronts to our moral sensibilities. Their voices call to our hearts, beckoning us to affirm the sacred worth of black and brown lives and bodies in a world in which they are too often treated as though they do not matter.

The appalling shooting death of 5-year-old Cannon Hinnant at the hands of a 25-year-old black neighbor in Wilson, North Carolina is another recent tragedy, expansive in its scope. A precious young life senselessly lost. A family devastated. A community undone. Another act of unthinkable violence. Grief beyond words. A little boy denied the journey into youth and adulthood that he should have enjoyed. His killer, within a day, was apprehended, arrested, and charged with first degree murder.

The intersection of these profound grief experiences is precisely where things become complicated and troubling. Perhaps that fact should come as no surprise to us. Our stewardship over our grief, after all, is one of the most significant and complex forms of stewardship that we will ever practice. The content of that stewardship will either deepen a heart or harden a heart.

The burden in my spirit at present is that a portion of the nation is practicing what I am experiencing as a truncated or malformed grief stewardship. This malformation is taking the form of an all-too-familiar demonization of the media—as in, “Why has the media been so ‘deafeningly silent’ about Cannon Hinnant’s murder in comparison to the coverage of George Floyd?” Such language, of course, fueled by politicized fervor, carries with it an accusation against either the media’s perceived irresponsibility or assumed agenda or both. The consequences of this accusation are intensified resentment and more clearly defined battle lines.

The malformation also takes the form of a race-based subjugation of one grief narrative to another: “You say that black lives matter? I say that Cannon’s life matters! You say speak THEIR names? I say speak Cannon’s name!” The end result is that two experiences of grief are positioned unfairly and hurtfully against one another, thereby obscuring the realities that both experiences illuminate.

I believe that we are better than this. We are collectively wiser and more careful in our thinking than this. We are more compassionate and gracious than this.

When we pit the death of Cannon Hinnant against the death of George Floyd (irrespective of how noble we believe our intentions to be) and utilize the comparison a means by which to castigate the media, we run the risk of reducing the murder of a young boy to an instrument of demonization. Beyond this, when we utilize Cannon’s death as an opportunity to express resentment over the cultural energy that is currently being devoted to the work of ensuring racial justice, we unnecessarily kneel on the neck of the mattering of black lives.

It does not have to be this way. We can allow Ahmaud Arbery’s story be its own story. And Breonna Taylor’s. And George Floyd’s. And Cannon Hinnant’s.

For these multiple urgencies to be rightly honored, however, moral people have to resist the temptation to settle for insufficient and denunciatory interpretations that only serve, in the long run, to gaslight and obscure.

I believe that we are better than this. We have to be.

A Blind Man, COVID-19, and the Good Heart of God

The Healing of the Man born Blind. Museum: PRIVATE COLLECTION. Author: Russian icon.

This weekend, many of my preacher friends (in their online and technologically reconfigured worship experiences) will be focusing on a pivotal moment in John’s gospel (John 9:1-41).

Jesus and his disciples encounter a blind man—blind from birth, in fact. The disciples ask a question that emerges from their long-established and deeply-held way of looking at the world:

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The question reveals a starkly equational way of looking at things, and the equation goes like this: If people experience hardship or suffering (like blindness; or cancer; or Alzheimer’s disease; or MS; or natural disasters; or COVID-19), it must be the result of God’s punishment for some transgression. In this equation, the man’s blindness is not merely the result of malfunctioning eyes. It is an existential penalty assigned by God to a sinner. Likewise, according to the equation, something like COVID-19 becomes the blunt instrument of a God with a substantial ax to grind.

The disciples were not halfwits, by the way. They were espousers of a theological system that was undergirded by a long and painful history. (Check out the chapters of the Old Testament book of Job if you need evidence of that history.) In this worldview, suffering has to have an initiator, a causal agent. And that causal agent is none other than our sovereign God, orchestrating suffering as a means of divine punishment for the sins of the past and present. The disciples, in this moment of Scripture, are not asking IF the man’s blindness is a punishment. They are simply trying to identify the guilty party:

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question is something beyond what the disciples are prepared to envision or receive in the moment. It is the kind of disruptive response that begins to alter the trajectory of the church’s understanding of the world and its suffering:

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus says. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

What?! What are you saying, Jesus?! Are you asking us to believe that human suffering is something other than divine punishment? Are you suggesting that this man’s blindness—or this woman’s cancer; or this child’s heart condition; or this world’s coronavirus—is something other than the work of a retributive deity? Are you really putting before us the idea that our suffering is not a penalty that God initiates but rather a brokenness that God willingly engages and eagerly redeems?

Jesus eventually heals the blind man, to be sure. But I do not believe that the blind man’s healing is the most profound miracle in this story. Rather, I believe that the most profound miracle is Jesus’ transformation of the disciples’ inadequate system of thought. Jesus incarnates a new worldview in their very presence—a worldview in which blindness and cancer and coronavirus and tornadoes and hurricanes can be looked upon, not as God’s means of punishment, but as the groaning of a world that yearns for a restoration not yet realized. In such moments of suffering, God is not the orchestrator of our hardship but its redeemer—not a punisher with questionable aim, but a compassionate Parent who vulnerably walks alongside a hurting human family, all the while providing the kind of healing and sustenance that bear witness to the goodness of the Divine Heart.

My sense is that people are asking deep and important theological questions about God’s relationship to COVID-19 (whether they realize it or not). I hope that the church will respond to those questions, not with manufactured platitudes and inadequate equations, but with the assurance of God’s good and gracious heart—a heart that heals suffering instead of causing it; a heart that will not rest until every portion of suffering finds its redemption.

Livability and Race Realities in the Steel City (and the Implications for Its Churches)

DqyNkS9UUAAnGqP

Back in early September, my heart was pleasantly warmed by the news that my nearest city, Pittsburgh, was named the third “most livable” city in the United States by a research group entitled the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“Way to go Pittsburgh,” I thought to myself. I was grateful that my city, often maligned or undervalued by other portions of the country, received some national affirmation and recognition for its many merits.

As is so often revealed, however, beauty always resides in the eye of the beholder—or the privileged. To put it another way, the “livability” of a city will always be judged differently by those who benefit the most and the least from its services. A highly livable environment for the privileged might at the same time become a territory of toxicity for those who find themselves marginalized or disenfranchised.

Case in point: Just yesterday, a friend and colleague drew my attention to two articles, also written in September. One of the articles was written by Brentin Mock for the website “CityLab.” The article is entitled “Pittsburgh: A ‘Most Livable’ City, But Not For Black Women.

The second article, written by Sakena Jwan Washington for the Huffington Post, was a deeply personal reflection on the first article. Here is a link to the second article, entitled “My City Was Named the ‘Worst Place for Black Women to Live.’ Is That My Cue to Leave?

Mock’s article sheds important light on troubling Pittsburgh statistics, many of which point to a city in which black girls and black women suffer from birth defect rates and death rates (along with school arrest, poverty, and unemployment rates) that are significantly higher than those of white Pittsburgh residents. These rates are also significantly higher than those of black people in the majority of other comparable cities.

To put this into perspective, consider these words from University of Pittsburgh sociology professor Junia Howell (whom Mock quotes in his article):

What this means is that if Black residents got up today and left [Pittsburgh] and moved to the majority of any other cities in the U.S. … their life expectancy would go up, their income would go up, their educational opportunities for their children would go up, as well as their employment.

As I pondered the statistic that 18 out of every 1,000 pregnancies for black women end in fetal death in Pittsburgh (as compared to 9 out of every 1,000 pregnancies for white women), I found myself undone by the enormity of what those numbers represent. In a city known for its teaching hospitals and medical technology, we have nurtured an environment in which fetal death is twice as likely among black infants than it is among white infants. At the very beginning of a life’s journey in Pittsburgh, there is a stark inequity that cannot be ignored or minimized.

In her reflection on Mock’s article (which is as poignant as it is eloquent), Sakena Jwan Washington, a professional “Black woman from Pittsburgh who also happens to be the mother of a Black girl,” gives voice to her own experience of Pittsburgh and its dynamics:

I wonder if I’m living in the dark. I’m surely not ignorant to the fact that most of my friends and colleagues are white. Or that finding a Black hair salon sometimes feels like going on a scavenger hunt, or that the Shadow Lounge ― a Black-owned lounge I once frequented monthly ― closed after gentrification shuttered its doors, or that my favorite jazz lounge closed for the same reason. It’s not lost on me that when an independent film like Toni Morrison’s biopic ‘The Pieces I Am’ comes to town, it plays in one theater in the entire city. I’m aware and I grumble about my observations every day. And yet, I’m still here.

I hear in Washington’s words the echoes of a marginalization that I will never be able fully to understand as a white male Pittsburgher but that I dare not minimize. The echoes compel me to wonder about the long-term impact of an institutionalized segregation that is so thoroughly embedded in a city’s ethos and daily patterns that it is routinely accepted as normative. “I might be able to operate in this sort of segregated atmosphere,” Washington writes, “but can my daughter? Will there be educational options in Pittsburgh that are both diverse and receive the same level of resources I had access to in my predominantly white private schools?”

These are questions that hang in the philosophical air, demanding the attentiveness of any Pittsburgher who longs for a city that is committed to justice and equity for all of its citizens and families.

I traffic in the rhythms of western Pennsylvania church life (United Methodist church life, more specifically). As a clergy person in a conference that has named “Dismantling Racism” as one of its areas of focus, it is one of my responsibilities to nurture the kind of spaces (and churches) in which racism in all of its forms (personal and systemic) is recognized, named, rejected, and actively dismantled. In recent days, I have seen deeply encouraging glimpses of my tribe’s commitment to this work.

A few weeks back, for example, during a time of anti-racism training, another white pastor spoke to me about one of his newly-energized priorities: “I have spent too many years giving lip-service to dismantling racism in the churches that I have served,” he said. “I am making it a priority in 2020 to help my [predominantly white] congregation and community to experience the kinds of resources, relationships, and conversations that will deepen their understanding of racism, privilege…and the sin of complicity.” His words inspired me to reflect on my own priorities in this regard—along with my own complicity.

At the same time, resistance to the work of dismantling racism finds expression in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I suggested to a ministry team recently that we read an article together entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (written by Peggy McIntosh), simply because I believed that the dynamics of white privilege were pertinent to the matters we were discussing. The body language in the room (which I have gotten fairly good at reading over the years) communicated a collective lack of hospitality to my suggestion. My interpretation of the body language was later confirmed by one of the team members, whose perspective I share with permission: “I know that racism still exists,” she said, “but when we keep fixating on it, all that we do is create resentment and enslave ourselves to the problem.”

I found the imagery of her words painfully ironic: “enslave ourselves to the problem.”

I wonder how that kind of imagery would fall upon the heart of an Asian-American or African-American pastor in Western Pennsylvania who is daily confronted by the reality of being the only person of color in the room (and in the sanctuary); or a person of color who regularly experiences both implicit and explicit racial biases that reinforce isolating and even dehumanizing presuppositions; or the black female Pittsburgher navigating the injustices and inequities illuminated by recent statistics. How can dismantling racism remain a focus when resistance to conversations about racism and a burgeoning sense of white fragility have begun to govern portions of the collective consciousness?

I suppose the dynamics that I am describing only serve to elucidate the complexity of the situation related to race. Racism is as real as it ever was, but far too many white people are tired of hearing about it. A pastor’s racial identity is still important enough to inspire a parishioner to leave a church, but the last thing that we want to hear is someone highlighting the issue of racism. The statistics related to black women in Pittsburgh are what they are, but we comfort ourselves with the manufactured belief that we have been completely delivered from our racist history.

If the United Methodist Church in western Pennsylvania is to succeed in keeping the dismantling of racism as an authentic point of focus, there are some governing convictions that white United Methodists in this region will have to embrace and guard. One of those convictions is that participating consistently in strategic conversations and training related to racism and privilege does not “enslave us to the problem” but rather generates a necessary spirit of galvanizing solidarity between the church and those for whom the problem truly is enslaving.  A second conviction would be that a condemnation of racism runs the risk of becoming anemic if it is not accompanied by a risky commitment from the privileged to utilize their voices in the fostering of expanded agency for the disenfranchised, disruptive truth-telling, and energized advocacy.

As a white male, my privilege often blinds me. I am painfully aware of that blindness, even as I type these words. It makes me all the more grateful for those souls in my journey (including my clergy colleagues) who love me enough to bring me into difficult but important conversations about race and who value me enough to hold me accountable for my ongoing participation in the relentlessly urgent work of dismantling the machinery of racism—a machinery that exists in both the hallways of our churches and the chambers of my own heart.

Sakena Jwan Washington concludes her article about Pittsburgh in this fashion:

The hard question for me is will my daughter struggle with connectedness the way I once did, and will a move to a city with a more robust Black middle class lessen her struggle? Is this a game-time decision, or must I act now?  Will I stay and be a pioneer for change, or will I leave to occupy spaces where I know, without question, my family will feel like they belong?

I hope and pray that she stays, but I know that my hopes and prayers are not enough. They must be accompanied by my commitment to the nurturing of spaces in which the kind of connectedness and belonging that Washington envisions can be pursued and experienced with integrity and hope. Only then will the “pioneers of change” get the strong sense that they are not alone in their pioneering.